Problems with Oord’s Theodicy and Miracles

Problems with Oord’s theodicy and miracles.

John Sanders. Professor of Religious Studies, Hendrix College.

Draft version, not for citation or quotation.  Published version:  “Why Oord’s Essential Kenosis Model Fails to Solve the Problem of Evil While Retaining Miracles.” Wesleyan Journal of Theology (fall, 2016): 174-187


From the notion that love is incompatible with control Thomas Oord develops a model of divine providence called “essential kenosis” which claims to “solve” the problem of evil while also retaining a traditional belief in miracles. He says that Wesleyan and open theist approaches fail to solve the problem of evil completely while process theology fails to uphold miracles. Using Oord’s own definitions and criteria it is shown that his model can either solve the problem of evil or affirm divine authorship of miracles, but not both.

The central claim in The Uncontrolling Love of God is that love never controls anything. From this Oord develops a model of divine providence called “essential kenosis” which seeks to “solve” the problem of evil while also retaining a traditional belief in miracles.[1] He claims this model is superior to both process theology and to freewill theism (both traditional Wesleyan and open theist approaches). According to Oord, process theology solves the problem of evil but it does so at the expense of rejecting miracles in general and the bodily resurrection of Jesus in particular. Traditional freewill theism affirms miracles but it fails to solve the problem of evil completely. The essential kenosis model is better because it overcomes these problems. First, it resolves all aspects of the problem of evil in such a way that God cannot be held responsible for, or even have a question asked about, why God did not prevent a genuine evil from occurring. “A God worthy of our worship cannot be Someone who causes, supports or allows genuine evil.” (68). Second, essential kenosis upholds miracles, particularly, the resurrection of Jesus. Hence, essential kenosis is put forth as a superior model to both process theology and freewill theism regarding theodicy and miracles because it has all the benefits inherent in these models but without the costs associated with them.

Unfortunately, an examination of the internal consistency of the essential kenosis model reveals that the proposal cannot affirm both (1) a complete solution to the problem of evil and (2) traditional belief in divine authorship of miracles. Though essential kenosis provides a successful theodicy it cannot realistically support miracles such as the bodily resurrection of Jesus. In the end, we are back to the choice between views which remove God from any questions regarding evil (such as process theology and essential kenosis) and those which affirm divine responsibility for miracles (such as Arminianism and open theism). This article first discusses Oord’s criticisms of two freewill views concerning evil. Then it describes the essential kenosis model. The final two sections examine the essential kenosis model in relation to evil and miracles to show why, according to its own definitions, it cannot both absolve God of responsibility for evil and also affirm miracles.[2]

Oord’s criticisms of the freewill tradition on evil.

Theologically, Oord’s lineage is from the freewill tradition which rejects theological determinism. He believes that humans have libertarian freedom and, thus, can say no to God and live in unloving ways. He also believes that God does not micromanage creation and that God has dynamic omniscience (God knows past and present events exhaustively and future events are open, not known, even for God). Yet, he thinks that other models in the freewill theistic tradition are unsatisfactory. Though Oord does not explicitly criticize process theology it seems that he would fault it for undermining miracles. The strong suit for process theology is that it gets God completely off the hook for evil. The same cannot be said for traditional Arminian theology or open theism. He characterizes the typical Arminian position as exemplified by Roger Olson and Alvin Plantinga as “God empowers and overpowers” (86). That is, God occasionally overpowers entities such as water, wind, and humans to bring about an event that God desires. In this model God does not want evil events to occur but God “allows” them for some good reason we are not aware of. This leads Oord to claim that this model suffers from “explanatory inconsistency” (88) and thus “makes God responsible for failing to prevent genuine evil” (89).

Though Oord has much in common with open theism he rejects it as well. In this model God creates ex nihilo and voluntarily decides to limit the divine self by not controlling everything in creation. Yet, on some occasions, such as the resurrection of Jesus, Oord says “God overpowers a creature or situation” to bring about what God wants to occur (90). Oord thinks this model has more “explanatory consistency” than the “God empowers and overpowers” (Arminian) model but it fails for the same reason: God could override the freedom or agency of creatures or violate the regularities of nature (92). Oord strongly rejects the notion that God is voluntarily self-limited. Oord says proponents of open theism typically put forth two different responses to the criticism that God should have prevented a particular evil (93). First, God has made a voluntary promise to seldom or never override the sovereignty of entities. Second, the “free-process” view, enunciated by William Hasker and John Polkinghorne says God grants genuine autonomy to all the entities God created (from humans to molecules) so if God occasionally controlled an entity it would disrupt the regular processes of life.[3] Oord says these moves are insufficient to render God blameless for every evil event. He holds that a self-limiting God who is truly loving “would become un-self-limited” (94) in order to prevent evils.

Oord criticizes open theist John Sanders regarding evil via the metaphor of motherhood: “A loving mother would prevent pointless harm to her child if she were able” (138).[4] Oord is correct that the open theist model can explain God’s overarching strategies and responsibilities regarding evil but it cannot explain any singular instance of evil. Open theism rules out a number of explanations of evil but some unanswered questions remain which entails that we need to trust God in the midst of questioning as did some biblical writers.[5] However, Oord wants a view free of any and all questions about divine responsibility and so concludes that “Sanders fails to solve the problem of evil” (144). Oord is correct that open theism and Arminianism do not “solve” the problem of evil in the sense that no questions about God’s responsibility remain.

To summarize this section, the main problem Oord finds with Arminian and open theist approaches is that they “make God responsible for failing to prevent genuine evil” (89). After all, God could override the freedom or agency of creatures or violate the regularities of nature (92). Such views claim that God loves creatures yet fail to exonerate God from all responsibility for failing to prevent evils. Oord sets forth his own model to remedy this situation.

The essential kenosis model.

The divine essence is love which entails that God must help others and give them what they need to flourish. Love is incapable of controlling others. In this model “God must love” (161). God does not choose to love, it is simply the way God is. This implies God must necessarily create. It also means that “God’s self-giving, others-empowering nature of love necessarily provides freedom, agency self-organization and lawlike regularity to creation” (169). God must give independence to the simplest entities such as cells and not control them in any respect.

This model is contrasted to two other views (163). First, God does not voluntarily place limits on what God does as is the case for most freewill theists. Rather, God’s essence (not will) limits God’s relations with creatures. The other option is to say that external forces limit what God can do (process theology).[6]  In essential kenosis God neither chooses to limit the divine self nor is God limited by things that are not God. Instead, God is by nature limited because love constrains who God is and what God does. God simply cannot do otherwise.

For Oord, love “cannot control others entirely” (181) so God never controls any other entity. Oord’s main criticism of Arminian and open theist approaches is that they allow God to control and coerce entities. It is crucial to his argument to understand what he means by coerce and control.  He gives four senses of what it means to “coerce” an entity (181-3).  (1) Psychological pressure. Someone feels pressure to do something but their free will is not removed.  (2) Physical violence. Coercive acts that result in physical harm to others. (3) Physical control. For example, when a parent places a toddler in a crib even though the child does not want to be there. Oord says that when he uses the words coerce or control he does not mean these first three senses. Rather, he means (4) what he calls “metaphysical coercion” which “involves unilateral determination, in which the one coerced loses all capacity for causation, self-organization, agency or free will” (183).

Oord criticizes the Arminian and open theist models for entailing that God unilaterally determines some events to occur which seems “to require God to control creatures completely” (139). Oord claims open theists and Arminians affirm “metaphysical coercion” which means that God destroys the self-organization, freewill, and agency of the entity. With an understanding of the essential kenosis model and an awareness of the problems Oord seeks to overcome in the other models we are now in position to examine the essential kenosis proposal regarding evil and miracles.

Essential kenosis and evil.

One of Oord’s goals is to produce a theodicy in which no questions can be raised about why God allowed or failed to prevent a particular harm from occurring. He says that God is completely off the hook for any and all evils because God cannot control any entity or event. God cannot prevent a rock from going through a windshield killing the parent of the children in the car nor can God stop a cancer from growing. Since God cannot prevent any of these harms we should never think God blameworthy for failing to avert them. God does not “allow” them because God cannot prevent them.

The reason why God is not culpable in any respect for evils is that God neither metaphysically controls nor physically controls any entity or event. For Oord, the divine essence is love so God must love all entities. He repeatedly says that “love never controls” another entity. This is presented as the crux of his theodicy. The title of the book is “The Uncontrollilng Love of God” which gives the impression that his theodicy hinges on the nature of God’s love. However, Oord clearly admits that not all types of control are bad. For instance, pushing someone out of the way of a moving truck or placing an unruly toddler in a crib can be loving acts. If love sometimes requires us to control others in certain respects then it is false to say “love never controls.”[7] Hence, genuine love is not necessarily uncontrolling. Recall that Oord criticized Arminian and open theistic views because God failed to control some natural events such as a rock crashing through a windshield killing the mother. This yields an astonishing conclusion that runs counter to much of the book: essential kenosis is not the key reason in Oord’s theodicy for why God does not prevent physical instances of suffering and evil.[8]

Oord agrees with his fellow freewill theists that love does not ordinarily coerce someone but that there may be times when love requires such actions. In fact, both sides can agree that God is essentially loving which means that Oord needs another explanation as to why God cannot prevent physical harms. The key to his theodicy is his claim that God is spirit or incorporeal (176-9). “If parents can sometimes stop one child from injuring another, why can’t God”? (176). He answers that God is a spirit without a localized body so God has no physical body to step between two humans intent on harming one another. “God does not have a wholly divine hand to scoop a rock out of the air, cover a bomb before it explodes or block a bullet before it projects from a rifle. While we may sometimes be blameworthy for failing to use our bodies to prevent genuine evils, the God without a localized divine body is not culpable” (178-9).

Many Christians will be surprised by this since it is a longstanding and widely held belief that God is incorporeal yet is capable of bringing about physical states of affairs. Oord believes it “necessary” to his theodicy that God lacks the sort of body that could produce physical states of affairs such as pushing someone out of the way of a truck.[9] For Oord, God is essentially loving which rules out metaphysical control and God is incorporeal which excludes physical control. Hence, the title of the book “The Uncontrolling Love of God” is only partly correct. God is uncontrolling in the metaphysical sense since God is essentially loving and uncontrolling in the physical sense since God lacks a body to produce physical effects.

There are a couple of other issues with Oord’s theodicy that arise from his discussion of metaphysical control. Such control involves overriding the agency and self-organization of entities. He says that a parent putting an infant into a crib is a case of bodily coercion but is not a case of metaphysical coercion. The reason why is that when a parent places a child in a crib the child retains (a) some capacity for causation, (b) self-organization (a body), and (c) agency or free will (though these are constrained). On this account, when a police officer places someone in handcuffs the arrested person retains agency and self-organization. Oord uses the example of Jesus driving the money changers from the temple to claim that Jesus did not control others entirely, metaphysically coerce them, or unilaterally control them (184). Oord never explains why it is the case that if a parent puts a child in a crib then it is not metaphysically coercive but if God brings this same event about then it involves totally overriding the agency, freedom, and self-organization of the person.

Another issue for his understanding of metaphysical control arises when he discusses the case of a child named Eliana who has a debilitating condition caused by genetic mutations. Oord says that God must empower these mutations because to prevent them from forming would be unloving on God’s part. To “prevent them would require God to . . . override . . .agency and self-organization to her body’s basic organisms, entities, and structures” (172). Consequently, a loving God necessarily empowers cancer cells and genetic mutations to harm creatures. Many Christians will be unable to swallow this because it means not only that God cannot prevent cancer cells it means that God cannot even want to prevent them. Divine love for the cancer is what prevents God from helping a human overcome cancer. For Oord, it seems God must love all entities equally so God cannot love Susan more than God loves the cancer cells in her body. God cannot show preferential treatment to one entity over another. However, Oord’s key metaphor for God is a loving parent and parents acting out of love do show favoritism to their children over cancers and viruses. When we take antibiotics to destroy certain bacteria are we acting in unloving ways? Most of us do not think we act immorally when we take antibiotics but Oord says it is immoral for God to destroy them.

Another problem is when Oord claims that open theists and Arminians believe that God occasionally “entirely controls” (metaphysically coerces) entities in order to bring about a specific state of affairs. This criticism is made numerous times but Oord provides no substantiation for this claim and I am not aware of any freewill theist who would affirm that God exercises Oord’s sense metaphysical control on people or objects. Take the case of putting  a child in a crib. What freewill theist would say that God “totally” controlled the child if God brought it about that the child was placed in a crib? Who would say that in such a situation God destroyed the child’s self-organization and agency such that it lacked any causation? Arminians and open theists are going to affirm physical (#3) coercion not metaphysical coercion so Oord’s criticism is misplaced.

Furthermore, this renders Oord’s definition of metaphysical coercion problematic. Oord says a parent placing an unwilling child in a crib involves physical not metaphysical control because the child retains self-organization and some causal abilities. Oord never explains why a parent placing an unwilling child in a crib does not destroy its self-organization or agency but if God brings it about that the child is in the crib then God has obliterated the child’s self-organization and agency.[10] This is a serious failing since he places so much weight on the notion of metaphysical control.

This section has argued that Oord does get God off the hook for evil in the sense that God cannot be blamed for failing to prevent any evil. God lacks the sort of localized body Oord believes is necessary to produce physical effects. Because God is incorporeal God cannot physically control any entity or event to change a state of affairs. Because God essentially loves God never metaphysically controls any entity because that would override its self-organization and go against the law-like regularities of nature.  Even though there are some surprising implications to his theodicy it seems to get him where he wants to go. But can this model of God also affirm miracles?

Essential kenosis and miracles.

A goal of the book is to affirm miracles such as the bodily resurrection of Jesus while at the same time absolving God of any responsibility for failing to prevent evils. His theodicy asserts that God cannot physically control any entity or alter the regularities of nature. How then can essential kenosis support miracles? He says “miracles are neither coercive interventions nor the result of natural causes alone. Miracles occur when creatures, organisms or entities of various size and complexity cooperate with God’s initiating and empowering love” (200). Oord says that God never suspends “the lawlike regularities in nature unilaterally” (191) but always works with the existing entities and laws of nature. Oord says that in many of the miracle accounts in the Bible entities such as water, wind, and humans had to cooperate with God. This is fine, but exactly what role does God have in a miracle? He says “special divine action involves God giving new forms of existence to which creatures or creation might conform” (199). It is unclear what this means. Oord does not provide any concrete examples but does say that God invites creatures to “cooperate to enact a future” (200). This sounds as if the only thing God actually does is to put forth “possibilities” to creatures. Oord rejects that God can exercise physical or metaphysical control but he does not believe either of these is needed to account for miracles.  “The Bible gives no explicit support to the view that miracles require divine control” or that miracles “require God to coerce” (201). How does God bring about miracles if God cannot move a grain of sand one millimeter?

Oord first discusses what he calls “nature miracles” in which God performs a special action on “inanimate objects and systems of nature” (205). Examples of these are the strong wind at the Red Sea, Jesus’s turning water into wine, and feeding the multitudes. In feeding of the multitudes Jesus worked through the inanimate bread and fish. Oord fails to say exactly what God did to bring about this miracle since God cannot unilaterally change the laws of nature regarding bread and fish nor can God alter the self-organization of fish.

Oord says that “Jesus calms wind and waves” (206) during a storm on the Sea of Galilee, that Jesus walked on water and turned water into wine. He claims that these miracles occurred without suspending the law-like regularities of nature or altering the self-organization of the water molecules. Did the molecules listen to God’s invitation to bring about a novel situation and cooperate with God? Oord says “it makes little sense to say that inanimate objects involved in natural miracles respond to God” since they “likely have no intentions or free will” (207). Oord states he needs to explain “how God acts noncoercively without relying entirely upon intentional creaturely cooperation” (207). Exactly! How did God turn water into wine and calm storms without suspending the law-like rules of nature or physically controlling these entities?

He proposes three possible explanations. First, when God identifies an opportune random event at the quantum level God calls upon entities “to respond in good and surprising ways” (209). He says this does not “afford God the capacity to do just anything” since God is relying on random events and does not “control” them. God simply relies on random events to produce incredible results at opportune moments. Exactly what does God do? Oord says only that God “coordinates” random events and gives no explanation of what this amounts to. This “explanation” is vague and fails to show how God was responsible for these miracles.

The second strategy is that “God offers novel possibilities to intentional agents and calls them to respond in ways that subsequently affect inanimate objects and natural systems” (209). He mentions chaos theory and the butterfly effect as possible explanations for how intelligent creatures affect inanimate entities. He suggests that the Israelites and Egyptians may have done things that affected weather patterns which in turn could have produced chain reactions that led to the plagues and to the formation of a strong wind which allowed the Israelites to cross the Red Sea (210). Once again, no details are provided and we are left wondering what role God had in these events since Oord says it was brought about by human actions causing nature to respond in these ways. What did God do here? Oord does not say.  He does not believe the notion that God “persuaded” molecules to form plagues and a strong east wind will work since such entities lack the robust type of freewill required for divine persuasion to occur. He rejects that God can physically control atmospheric conditions: “God cannot override the lawlike regularities we see in the world” (208). If God cannot persuade atmospheric conditions or water and God cannot physically control them then there is no real basis to claim that God calmed a storm or that Jesus multiplied fish and bread. In this model there is no genuine way to affirm that God is responsible for miracles. In his theodicy, Oord claims it is impossible for God to prevent storms but then he turns around and says that God dissolved a storm on the Sea of Galilee. He cannot have it both ways and maintain “explanatory consistency.”[11]

The third strategy to explain miracles is that God believes with high probability that a strong east wind is going to blow all night long on a particular day at a certain location of the Red Sea so God guided the Israelites to that location on that day (210). This explanation provides a plausible account for this miracle story and may work for some others. However, this strategy does not explain the other nature miracles such as turning water to wine and feeding the multitudes. What in those situations would have provided God with knowledge of probable future events that water was going to simply change itself into wine at just the right moment when Jesus wanted it to?

Overall, the three strategies Oord suggests for how God works in the universe are just tossed out without any substantive explanation. Simply invoking quantum mechanics and chaos theory is not sufficient to explain how God was able to bring about these events mentioned in biblical narratives. Does the God of essential kenosis actually have the ability to bring such events about? Oord fails to show how this is possible. In fact, the first two strategies (random events and chaos theory) sound like a just-so story—they just happened the way God hoped they would. Oord’s explanations do not allow us to ascribe genuine responsibility to God for nature miracles.

Oord does not discuss the narratives of Jesus’ healing people but it seems doubtful that any of his three strategies can explain them. Saying they were the results of random events or the product of chaotic forces that occurred long ago will not explain why they happened when Jesus wanted them to occur. He does suggest why divine healings fail to occur. “The organisms, body parts, organs and cells of our bodies can resist God’s offer of new forms of life that involve healing. These creaturely elements and organisms have agency too, and this agency can sometimes thwart miracles” (213). A key problem for Oord is that he says both that God wants to change entities such as viruses and cancers and also that God must empower cancer cells and viruses to be all they can be. It is contradictory to claim that God must love the integrity of cancer cells and also claim that God wants to destroy the cancer cells. God cannot love Susan more than God loves the cancer cells and so cannot heal her. Then what about the cases in the gospels where Jesus healed people? If the essential kenosis God necessarily loves and sustains diseases then it does not make sense for Oord to claim that Jesus healed people of such things.  If God must empower cancer cells to thrive then what does Oord mean when he says that cells can resist God’s offer to change and heal the larger entity? To be consistent Oord should say that God never wants to heal Susan of cancer because God loves those cancer cells. Similarly, Oord should say that since God necessarily loves the self-organization of storms and diseases that Jesus did not bring about the cessation of a storm or heal people of their infirmities.

What about the bodily resurrection of Jesus? It is central to the Christian faith so how does Oord account for it? To find out he refers us to a few pages in another book of his.[12] Here he affirms the bodily resurrection of Jesus and says that though he was dead, Jesus’ body and spirit “cooperated” with God’s raising activity (152). What does it mean for a dead person to cooperate? Oord mentions cases of resuscitation in emergency rooms to claim that “dead bodies are not entirely without agency, value, relationship, or freedom” (151). Unfortunately, Oord does not explain what “agency” and “freedom” bodies possess that have been dead longer than 24 hours and have begun to decompose.  He notes that there is a difference between resuscitation and resurrection but what they have in common is a body that can return to life. Jesus’ dead body still existed so it could respond to stimuli and so “played a cooperative role in the resurrecting action of the almighty God of love” (151).

Oord does not explain what “cooperate” means here.[13] Perhaps he means that the inert molecules in the dead body listened to God’s call. God somehow presented the dead molecules of Jesus’s body with a novel possibility of returning to life and these molecules somehow activated themselves back to life. That the dead molecules had freedom, however, seems to be rejected by Oord when he says that though he is open to the possibility that the smallest entities have a measure of free will, he does not see how that would make a difference for miracles.[14] So what happened? Was it a random event for which God was very grateful? If so, then it can hardly be said that “God raised Jesus from the dead” (Rom 10:9). Did a butterfly flap its wings in Australia which set off a chain of chaotic events that resulted in the dead body of Jesus returning to life at just the right time and place? Oord speaks of God’s “resurrecting action” on Jesus’ body but none of his three ways of explaining miracles plausibly has a role for God to play in this event.

Also, Oord’s model has the problem that since God necessarily loves the self-organization of entities and never wants to make changes to the regularities of nature  so God cannot even want to resurrect the dead body of Jesus. To do so would be unloving. Oord’s version of an essential kenosis model entails a deity who cannot be responsible for miracles and, in fact, cannot even want to bring them about. In order for Oord to avoid a just-so story of the resurrection and other miracles he needs a deity who can do more. A deity who can exercise physical (not metaphysical) control over Jesus’ dead body could plausibly resurrect him. However, this would render his view vulnerable to the same criticism he makes against the freewill models: God should prevent more evils. Since Oord denies that God can physically control any entity the resurrection of Jesus is a fortuitous event for which God is quite grateful. This gives “explanatory consistency” to the essential kenosis model but the cost is to forfeit the traditional Christian claim that the resurrection of Jesus was an event brought about by God. Oord admits that his model seems, to Arminians and open theists, to undermine miracles. In fact, it fails to support nature miracles and the resurrection of Jesus for the very reasons used to defend God’s non-culpability for evil. In order to protect his theodicy Oord resorts to just-so stories to affirm miracles.


Oord claims that the essential kenosis model has the internal consistency to both get God completely off the hook for evil and also affirm that God can bring about miracles. However, the amount of control sufficient to bring about miracles would be sufficient to prevent evils. If God cannot prevent evils then God cannot author miracles. Oord cannot have it both ways. If Oord affirmed that God can exercise physical control at times then God could produce miracles but then his position would face the same question he raises against open theism and Arminianism: why does God not prevent more evils? Since Oord denies that God can exercise physical control over any entity he absolves God of responsibility for not preventing evils. But then he fails to give a plausible way to uphold the resurrection of Jesus and other miracles.

In addition, Oord needs to explain a couple of items. First, if a parent can lovingly use physical control without overriding the self-organization and agency of the entity, then why is it the case that if God brought about the same event it would destroy the self-organization of the entity? Second, why did God successfully calm a storm on the Sea of Galilee when it is unloving for God to disturb the law-like regularities of nature? How can God turn water into wine or resurrect the dead body of Jesus if God cannot physically control any entity and it is unloving to change their self-organization? Similarly, how can he claim that God wants to heal people of diseases when he also claims that the divine nature must love and empower those very diseases?

The book claims to solve all aspects of the problem of evil while retaining core doctrines such as the resurrection of Jesus. In this model God is not responsible for evils but the cost is that God is not responsible for miracles such as the resurrection of Jesus. All theological models have benefits and costs and Oord has not found a way to have his cake and save it too.[15]

[1] Thomas Jay Oord, The Uncontrolling Love of God: an Open and Relational Account of Providence (Downers Grove, IL:InterVarsity Press, 2015).

[2] There are other issues with Oord’s proposal but this paper examines only the explanatory consistency of the model on its own terms.

[3] Though Oord cites two books on evil by open theist William Hasker he does not engage these works. See Hasker Providence, Evil, and the Openness of God, (New York: Routledge,  2004) and The Triumph of God Over Evil: Theodicy for a World of Suffering (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2008).

[4] Both Sanders and Oord think of God as a parent. However, Sanders uses a number of other metaphors (which Oord rejects) to understand God’s multiple roles and responsibilities. For Sanders, God is in some respects like a parent but not in all respects since God alone is responsible for the well-being of the entire cosmos. No single metaphor says all that we need to say about divine responsibilities and roles. See Sanders, Theology in the Flesh: How Embodiment and Culture Shape the Way We Think About Truth, Morality, and God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016).

[5] See, for example, Psalm 13:1 and Habakkuk 1:1-4. Oord’s position rejects the biblical theme of lament or even protest against God for failing to act. For Oord, questioning God about not preventing an evil is misinformed since there is nothing God can do about such evils. On trusting God in the midst of questions about suffering see Sanders, The God Who Risks, revised edition (Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity, 2007), 68-70 and 275-6.

[6] For Oord, God is not limited by external forces as in standard process views but solely by the divine nature. In process thought God lacks the power to move a spoon from one side of a table to another. For Oord, God cannot do this for two reasons. First, God lacks the type of body necessary to move a spoon. Second, because God loves the self-organization of the spoon and the regularities of nature.

[7] To be consistent, Oord can only mean this in the sense of metaphysical, not physical, control but he fails to adequately explain this.

[8] I thank Manuel Schmid for this insight.

[9] In personal correspondence Oord assured me that God’s lack of a localized body was “necessary” to his theodicy.

[10] David Basinger says “It may well be that no being can unilaterally control another in the sense that the former can cause the latter to be devoid of all power of self-determination.” Divine Power in Process Theism (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1988), 30.

[11] An additional problem for Oord’s second strategy is to explain how God calls to intelligent beings and offers them possibilities. Oord says that Moses intuited God’s “still small voice” to go to the Red Sea at a particular time (210). Neurons are important for brain function and thoughts. Since, in Oord’s model God cannot control electrical impulses or particular neurons to formulate thoughts in our minds then how does God persuade us or offer us new possibilities? What does Oord mean by divine persuasion and call if God cannot activate a single neuron?

[12] Oord, The Nature of Love: a Theology (St. Louis, MO.: Chalice, 2010), 150-153.

[13] Oord’s view has a problem explaining the resurrection of the dead who are totally decayed or cremated. They now lack self-organizing structure so how can they be resurrected in the eschaton since there is no body left to “cooperate” with God?

[14] Uncontrolling Love, 210 n. 38.

[15] I want to thank William Hasker, Ryan McLaughlin, Richard Rice, and J. Aaron Simmons for comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

John Sanders

John E. Sanders is an American theologian who is a professor of religious studies at Hendrix College. He has published on four main topics: (1) open theism, (2) Christian views on the salvation of non-Christians, (3) Christian views on the nature of hell, and (4) applying cognitive linguistics to theology.

4 replies
  1. William Lance Huget
    William Lance Huget says:

    Thank you for this effort. Has Oord replied and do you find his counter-arguments non-persuasive? I concur that his theodicy is not a panacea or unifying theory. It seems that a cumulative approach from various views (especially Open Theism) is needed.

    • John Sanders
      John Sanders says:

      Hello William. Oord and I exchanged several emails and he has published a reply “Miracles, Theodicy, and Essential Kenosis: A Repsonse to John Sanders”
      Wesleyan Theological Journal (Fall 2018): 194-215. I find some of Oord’s qualifications helpful but I still do not believe he answers my basic criticism but he fails to be precise enough in his definitions.

  2. grimtraveller
    grimtraveller says:

    There are probably many lay people {ie, not “official” or recognized scholars, or even scholars at all !} like myself that enjoy engaging with the thoughts and ideas of writers, scholars, and philosophers and do a lot of reading, that might sometimes conclude that there are some scholars, writers, and philosophers that are perhaps just too intelligent for their own good and might dare to suggest that simple, child-like trust is in short supply in some of those whose works they read.
    Essential kenosis strikes me as one such, if Thomas really did conclude the things you say he did.
    One really important point I grabbed from Clark Pinnock when I first began grappling with open theism back in 2003 was that any model presented had to be intelligible, had to make some kind of sense to the ordinary Joe and Josephine. It’s not necessary to have all the answers, but it is necessary to be biblically sound, easily explainable, and robust.
    Maybe I’m just way out of my depth here {it wouldn’t be the first time}, but essential kenosis, as the kids in Kilburn, London, used to say in the 1980s, “just ain’t saying it !”

    • John Sanders
      John Sanders says:


      Thank you for your comments. Tom Oord and I are friends and agree on quite a bit. Yet, I do not believe he acknowledges any costs to his view. I believe that all theological models have costs because there is no perfect model.
      Dr. Sanders


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